Constructing a House, Deconstructing a Life
By now you know that when Lanie Tankard pens a guest post review of a memoir, you want to read the review whether or not you read the book!
by Annie Proulx
(New York: Scribner, January 2011)
Reviewed by Lanie Tankard
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx has housed her life in a memoir. During the design and construction of a home in Wyoming, she began thinking about other houses in which she’s lived. She also started wondering about previous inhabitants of the terrain upon which her new abode was taking shape. The resulting framework became Bird Cloud, a name she gave both to her book and her ranch.
Within this memoir, Proulx scatters bits of herself along with research about the property, superimposing her life and the life of the land onto the building design. The triage is akin to a configuration by Frank Gehry, with no clue about what’s around the next corner.
Proulx, known for fiction, broke away from predictability here in a nonfiction nonlinear creation that distorts structure. As in some architecture, the expectation of a work unfolding in a conventional way sets up the tension of lines on a grid being erased. Proulx herself tells us in the first chapter: “Observational skills, quick decisions (not a few bad ones), and a tendency to overreach, to stretch comprehension and try difficult things are part of who I am.”
While Proulx employs the basic unit of chapters, with footnotes and sketches, the story itself runs off in all directions. Bird Cloud chronicles the purchase of 640 acres of prairie and wetlands in Wyoming, and the placement of a house there. Writers can catch glimpses of Proulx’s work habits. Architects may glean insights about flashpoints with clients — and builders. Archaeologists will love her expeditions to uncover fire pits and chert flakes. Birders will go wild over lengthy descriptions of the species inhabiting this tract that she bought from the Nature Conservancy. A river runs through it — the North Platte, accented by cliffs four hundred feet high.
Readers jump from house design to examination of Proulx’s childhood, with tangents of history, biology, archaeology, genealogy, and anthropology tossed in for good measure. Then we zing back to house construction while hunting for Indian artifacts. Suddenly we’re in a lengthy Audubon bird guide, until hopping in Proulx’s truck for a trip to town.
Well-known author Michael Pollan also designed and constructed a building in which to write, documenting the process in A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams. Pollan’s book is a more smoothly flowing philosophical meditation on architecture, the natural world, and himself. The process employed by Proulx is akin to a jerky handheld movie camera capturing the difficulty of living one’s life amidst the chaos of construction or remodeling. And that’s not necessarily a bad approach.
Bird Cloud almost requires several readings to focus on the disparate elements. I found aspects I hadn’t noticed the first time around when I went back to zero in on the memoir theme. Proulx has a good handle on her identity. Perhaps writing memoir assisted her definition of self.
More reticent than Pollan, Proulx tells us straight out that “complexity and clutter are my style.” She employs house not only in the traditional sense of a building made for people to live in, but also in the metaphorical sense of revisiting previous dwellings in her mind to retrieve impressions from those periods. A memory can sometimes arise swiftly from its storehouse, as a bird disturbed from its nest will shoot skyward. It’s easy to visualize these recollections clustering overhead as a cloud of fine feathered friends.
Clouds are opaque, though. If memoirists place recollections down on paper without reflection, the images will remain impervious to light — obscure and unintelligible in meaning. Proulx uses her reminiscences here to delve deeper into her own character in an effort to understand who she is and how she came to be that way. She speculates at times, starting from oral history and searching for facts to back it up.
“I don’t trust the tricks of memory,” Proulx says, bemoaning the difficulty of locating evidence about intriguing stories from relatives. She is plagued by “questions of family origins.” Her need to connect the dots in her ancestry is a universal one, “a burning need to complete the puzzle, to find the missing pieces.”
People write memoir for many reasons. Some merely spout facts and dates. A few assign blame for past events. The adventurous use it as a data-mining device to dig deeper into the cave of memories, bringing up nuggets. Gutsy writers hold a magnifying glass up to these abstract chunks, using the lens of introspection to gain insights about the forces that shaped them into the people they are today.
Proulx offers brief glimpses into her work process as a writer, as well as quick peeks at her soul: “Well do I know my own character negatives—bossy, impatient, reclusively shy, short-tempered, single-minded. The good parts are harder to see, but I suppose a fair dose of sympathy and even compassion is there, a by-product of the writer’s imagination. I can and do put myself in others’ shoes constantly.”
Before Proulx broke out into short stories and novels, she wrote several factual volumes about the making of cider, fences, and gardens. Search “Annie Proulx” on Amazon under Books, and you get 245 results.
The stage of her childhood is set with sharply rendered scenes from as early as two or three years old. Becoming ill, she recalls “the dizzy sensation” as she climbed the stairs and “the relentless nail” that snagged her sweater, holding her fast. She details cleaning out the objects of one house, saying, “I still sometimes think I can go back there and see these things.”
Proulx reminisces about the many, many houses in which she’s lived: “We moved and moved and moved. Over the years we lived in dozens of houses.” She reflects on the possible reasons for that itinerant lifestyle, fleshing out “a hard-to-know father.” She calls the death of a childhood pet crow dubbed Jimmy an “introduction to tragic and inconsolable loss,” but never offers specifics about later losses.
Does memoir have a hard-and-fast rule that a writer must tender an entire life to merit membership in the genre? Or is the field more flexible, responsive to variety? Proulx chooses to put the spotlight on her ancestors and her childhood, skipping the middle chapters of education, work, three marriages, three divorces, three sons, one daughter, and four sisters. She picks up the story thread with a visit to her mother in the 1980s, continuing the exploration of her heritage. Perhaps such concentrated attention on one facet of an existence enables greater clarity.
What is a successful memoir? Is it a “tell all” that makes readers feel like voyeurs? Do we have that right? Can’t a memoir work if it presents only a certain number of details in a way that enables readers to feel their own lives reflected somehow?
The construction of Bird Cloud the house shapes the structure of Bird Cloud the book. Right there on the first page, in her choice of the word “squirted” to describe the way speeding trucks moved gravel into ditches, Proulx is in command of her sentences. And often, they dazzle.
Take this deceptively simple one, as she and her sister set out to visit their mother: “The day was mild for late November, heavy overcast, light rain and fog, one of those dark days that New England breeds in autumn.” Look at the way it’s created. See how it draws the reader in, takes you along with the two women as they set out on their journey. It implies a slight leaning in of the shoulders, with a nod of the speaker’s head, as if to say to the listener, “You know the kind of day I mean, don’t you? You’ve encountered them, too, right?” You could cast the description of that day a dozen different ways, but you wouldn’t catch the same elusive lost-in-thought spirit that allows us to hear the individuality of Proulx’s voice. She is so observant, noticing qualities such as “the scent of wet leaves and rain.”
Proulx, now 75, tells us in anticipation of building Bird Cloud: “This place is, perhaps, where I will end my days. Or so I think.” At that point, she has the prospect of a refuge, but the second sentence foreshadows the book’s ending. After the house is finished, Proulx realizes it could never be “the final home of which I had dreamed.” She alludes to eagles, wasting “no time on tears.” After the book was published, she placed the ranch on the market for a time, but then took it off. In a recent interview from Australia, Proulx indicates she will move back to the property when the snow clears.
Annie Proulx has taken a slice of her life, as if shaving reminiscences from a plank. Before sweeping them up, she examined the wood curls and then put them in her outstretched hands, offering to share them with the world. That takes courage. It’s not fiction this time, but real life. And it’s hers.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, TX. She is a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
I searched on Lanie’s name in this blog and found 17 posts in which you can read more of her reviews.
Let’s ask Lanie’s question again, to stimulate your comments. Do memoirs have to cover a whole life? Do your favorite ones go deep into one period of time, expand over a long life, or move between childhood and later life using flashback and flashforward? Talk amongst yourselves!